We have trouble coping with our present because we’ve lost our past

Summary:   Americans know so little of our past, and much of what we know is wrong.  Might this contribute to our difficulties, our inability to see, understand, and grapple with our problems?  Here we example some of the worse examples of our hidden history.  How much might we benefit by reclaiming our past?

A people who cannot clearly see their past may have difficulty steering its way into the future — and become an easier subject for propaganda.   Especially a nation grounded in common beliefs — a national story — instead of shared religion or ethnicity.  Like America.

So much of our common history is false, either blotted out by consensual amnesia or overlaid by myth.  It’s lightly hidden, available in books such as Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Fear (see this review) or Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot.   The truth is out there, but we prefer not to know.

Here are some other episodes of our lost history.

  1. The rugged individualists who built America
  2. Opening the wild west
  3. The successful insurgency after the Civil War
  4. How we won WWII
  5. Separation of Church and State

(1)  The rugged individualists who built America

America was built to a large extent by collective action, using government-built infrastructure.  The classic explanation is “The Myth of Rugged American Individualism“, Charles A. Beard, Harper’s, December 1931.  It’s as appropriate today as when written during the Depression.  Excerpt:

This is only one of the many straws in the wind indicating a movement to exult rugged individualism into a national taboo beyond the reach of inquiring minds.  From day to day it becomes increasingly evident that some of our economic leaders are using the phase as an excuse for avoiding responsibility, for laying the present depression on “government interference,” and seeking to avoid certain forms of taxation and regulation that they do not find to their interest.

Beard describes the many services the government provided during America’s development:

  • Government regulation of railroads
  • Waterways (harbors, improvements to rivers)
  • The United States Barge Corporation
  • The shipping business
  • Building airway infrastructure, which subsidizes airmail
  • Building canals
  • Building highways
  • The Department of Commerce, the bureau of standards, the Federal Trade Commission
  • Tariffs (the wall behind which American industry was built

(2)  Opening the wild west

Most of the 19th century was a long darkness after the Founders’ generations.  Such as the opening of  the West, seen in the contrast between America’s westward expansion and Canada’s.  Learning from our example, they brought law and order (e.g., the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) to the frontier — avoiding the cesspool of violence that characterized the US west.  Not just the gunfights, kids and drunks shooting each other, but the organized lawlessness of powerful ranchers using hired gunmen to build vast empires.  When the cavalry did arrive, as at the end of the Lincoln Country War, they sometimes helped the bad guys (see Wikipedia; it was nothing like the film Chisum).

Let’s not forget the Indians.  Treat after treaty, each violated.  Indian uprisings brutally crushed.  It started when President Jackson replaced Washington’s policy of assimilation with relocation of Native Americans (see Wikipedia), signed into law with the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  This led to the Trail of Tears and generations of oppression.

These years also saw the failure of the Federal Courts to fulfill their potential role as guardians of our constitutional rights.  The “Marshall trilogy” of rulings betrayed the Native Americans (Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823), Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), Worcester v. Georgia (1832).  This established the Court as protector of minor rights — and major rights against weak opposition.  This tradition continued through Dred Scott vs Sandford (1857) through Korematsu v. United States (1944), interning 70 thousand US citizens due to their ethnic origin.

A sidenote:  We’re in a new era of constitutional law, as seen in the Roberts trilogy of cases:  Rasul v. Bush (2004)Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), and Boumediene v. Bush (2008).  The Supreme Court ruled against the Executive in all three cases, with little effect on government policy.  Whatever restraining effect courts once had on the growth of executive power, little remains today.

It’s a story almost too sad to tell.  This is the way of the world, stronger people taking land of the weak.  We cannot change it, but we could learn much about our nation and ourselves — if we didn’t prefer myth.

(3)  The successful insurgency after the Civil War

Another part of the long darkness of 19th century US history concerns our oppression of African Americans, in two phases.  First, the Civil War (aka the war between the states).  Many in the South are taught from childhood a largely fake history of the war; children in the rest of the US are taught little about the war.   The relatively useless lists of battles receive close attention (including the totally useless battle maps, with their incomprehensible arrows), many remain ignorant about the causes of the war and drivers of its outcome.  Discussion of this lies beyond the scope of a brief post.  Here are two brief books on the subject, written for a general audience:

  • Lee Considered by Alan T. Nolan (1991) — General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History
  • The Cause Lost by William C. Davis (1996) — Myths and Realities of the Confederacy

Perhaps more important and especially sad is our amnesia bout the results of the war.  The South lost the war but gained many of their goals by a successful insurgency after the end of Reconstruction.  Economic and physical oppression of Blacks by State-sponsored terrorism.  This post describes their success, and the long struggle after WWII to re-establish the Constitutional regime in the South.  It’s a powerful story, a long darkness followed by heroic victories.  Omitting real history like this makes our history texts boring.

Update, a comment from a reader:

“You are too hard on the South.  We were just defending ourselves.  If it weren’t for the Northern invasion, slavery would have ended anyway, or be winding up sometime fairly soon.”

(4)  How we won WWII

We won WWII by entering late, letting others absorb the brunt of the fighting.  That was just and reasonable, waiting until we were attacked.  But it does not match the narrative children learn and cherish.

  • Soviet Union crush the Germans (at horrific cost), and arriving at the end in a blaze of glory.   The USSR lost aprox ten million dead soldiers, with roughly 24 million dead (14%) overall.
  • In the Pacific, China did most of the fighting against Japan.  The losses can only be estimated, and the estimates vary widely:  3-4 million dead military deaths, 10-20 million total (2-4%).
  • The US lost about 420 thousand, only a few thousand of which were civilians (0.3%).
  • For more numbers and links to sources see Wikipedia’s entry about World War II casualties.

(5)  Separation of Church and State

The meaning of the first amendment has evolved, like so much of the Constitution.  How sad that we remain unaware of the process, which could teach us much about the real operation of the Constitution — and how our interpretation of it differs from that of the Founders — and fits us much better for it.

As with so much of America’s faux history, the actual history of the first amendment has been buried and replaced with myth.  The following excerpt explains how most of the Founders considered churches (organized religion) to be the foundation of morality — and hence civilization and the State.  Separation of Church and State was for radicals.  I recommend reading the full article to learn about the evolution of the first amendment (especially the role played by those advocates of religious freedom — the KKK).  It’s from “Against Separation“, Philip Hamburger (Prof of Law, Columbia U), Public Interest, Spring 2004.

It is no coincidence that American dissenters demanded a religious liberty very different from separation of church and state, for they did not want separation. Their distaste for separation may come as a surprise, but it is important to recall, because it explains why separatism is without historical authority.

Many American dissenters in the late eighteenth century would have been familiar with the idea of separation between church and state, but they knew it as an establishment accusation rather than an anti-establishment demand. It was a notion that establishment ministers had long used to mischaracterize the claims of religious dissenters. In particular, during an era in which morals were widely understood to depend upon religion, the suggestion that dissenters sought to separate either church from state or religion from government implied they hoped to separate government from the foundations of morality. As it happens, dissenters did not demand a separation of church and state. Yet establishment ministers found it advantageous to hint that dissenters sought this because it made the dissenters’ demands for religious liberty seem disreputable.

… Almost no dissenters, whether in sixteenth-century England or eighteenth-century America, took such a position. On the contrary, like establishment ministers, they tended to assume that some connections between church and state were unavoidable and even valuable. They typically opposed any civil establishment of religion, and they therefore rejected some of the institutional connections between church and state. But they had no desire to prevent all connections. In particular, they tended to share with establishment ministers a hope for a civil society in which religious societies were supportive of civil law and in which civil law protected the rights of religious societies. For example, most dissenters assumed that they assisted government by encouraging morality, by praying for government, and by upholding the sanctity of oaths. By the same token, they needed government to provide legal protection for their church property, to give legal effect to marriages conducted by their clergy, and to protect the freedom of their preachers in expounding faith and morality to the people, including with respect to politics. Dissenters also expected government to protect the religion of the people in more active ways, such as by passing laws prohibiting Sunday labor or even requiring observance of the Sabbath. American dissenters therefore had every reason to share with establishment ministers the sense that a separation of church and state was disreputable.

It should thus come as no surprise that the dissenters did not demand “separation of church and state,” and that this phrase does not appear in the Constitution. Nor is it plausible that (as is sometimes suggested as a fallback position) separation is an understated but underlying principle of the First Amendment. Separation was simply not what religious dissenters or their advocates wanted.

What about “building a wall of separation between Church & State”?  The phrase is not in the Declaration, Constitution, or Federal Law.  It’s from a letter by Vice President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association, written 1 January 1801.

For more about the original intent (not “true” intent) of the First Amendment, see these Wikipedia entries:

Lessons and even advice from the past

  1. Our futures seen in snippets of the past, 16 June 2008
  2. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past, 30 June 2008
  3. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 1 July 2008
  4. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  5. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
  6. A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military, 7 August 2009
  7. Another note from our past, helping us see our future, 16 September 2009
  8. A note from America’s diary: “My power proceeds from my reputation…”, 22 September 2009
  9. A great philosopher and statesman comments on the Bush-Obama tweaks to the Constitution, 10 October 2010



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